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European Football Weekend Round-Up & Power Rankings By Zach Lowy

Each Monday, I’ll be writing a weekly round-up on this season’s action at BET Central, including the managers on the hot seat and the coaches who are delivering the goods for their clubs, the young prospects who are putting themselves in the spotlight, and the players and teams who are making the headlines or flying under the radar in the 2021/22 season.

European Football Round-Up

Since joining from Atlético Madrid for a club-record fee totalling €14 million, Pizzi has been an example of consistency and production at Benfica, serving a vital role in four league titles and playing 87 consecutive Liga NOS matches, a streak that ended on December 29, 2020, when he tested positive for COVID-19 and missed Benfica’s 2-1 win over Portimonense.

Pizzi’s Early Career

Born in Bragança, Portugal as Luís Miguel Afonso Fernandes, he would often wear the jersey of Barcelona striker Juan Antonio Pizzi, and his similar goalscoring exploits in neighbourhood matches saw him earn the nickname ‘Pizzi.’ Pizzi began his career with GD Bragança before joining Braga’s academy in 2008, although he would make just two appearances for the Minhotos, spending the bulk of his time out on loan.

His Return to Portugal

With the money received from Coutinho’s departure to Barcelona in January 2018, Liverpool were able to sign Virgil van Dijk from Southampton in the same window, as well as Alisson from Roma and Fabinho f

Upon his return to Portugal, Pizzi initially struggled for minutes under Jorge Jesus, but he finally gained his first Liga NOS start on January 31, 2015, providing an assist in a 3-0 victory over Boavista.

Similar to his predecessor Enzo Pérez, Jesus converted Pizzi from a winger into a central midfielder, and the results soon followed; he provided 4 goals and 8 assists in 31 appearances as the Encarnados narrowly edged Julen Lopetegui’s Porto side to the league title.

Jesus controversially left Benfica in the summer to join Sporting, the club where he had begun his footballing career back in the 1970s, but Pizzi reached a new level under manager Rui Vitória.

After narrowly defeating Jesus’s Sporting to win a third straight league title in 2015/16, Pizzi provided 13 goals and 12 assists in the following campaign as Benfica claimed a domestic double, eventually being named Player of the Season at the LPFP Awards.

The following season, Porto denied Benfica in their quest for an unprecedented fifth league title, but they bounced back in 2018/19 under the leadership of rookie manager Bruno Lage, who took over in the summer after previous stints as Carlos Carvalhal’s assistant and coach of Benfica B.

Whilst he began the season as a central midfielder, Pizzi was gradually moved into the right flank of Lage’s 4-4-2 following the emergence of 19-year-old Florentino Luís, who formed an assured double pivot with Gabriel Pires in the middle of the pitch.

Bolstered by the breakthroughs of Florentino, Ferro, and João Félix, Benfica closed the distance on Porto and eventually leapfrogged them in the league table following a 2-1 victory at the Estádio do Dragão.

Leading the way was the veteran Pizzi, who became one of the club’s captains following the retirement of Luisão and provided 15 goals and 23 assists as Benfica won a record 37th league title. He one-upped himself in 2019/20 with 30 goals and 19 assists, although it wasn’t enough to prevent Sérgio Conceição’s Porto from regaining their Liga NOS crown.

The 2020/21 Season

Whilst he began the 2020/21 league campaign on the bench in a 5-1 win against Famalicão, Pizzi returned to the starting line-up the following week in a 2-0 win against Moreirense and would continue to be a regular starter in the first half of the campaign, scoring goals against Farense and Marítimo as well as picking up 7 goals and 2 assists in the UEFA Europa League group stage.

After recovering from COVID-19, Pizzi returned to Jorge Jesus’ starting line-up the following week in a 2-0 win against Tondela, playing the full 90 minutes, receiving a booking in the 73rd minute, and wearing the captain’s armband in this match and the following one, a 1-1 draw against Porto.

Pizzi grabbed an assist in a 1-1 draw against Nacional and played the full 90 minutes in a 0-1 defeat to eventual champions Sporting, but after being subbed off in a scoreless draw against Vitória on February 5, 2021, he would make just one more start in the league over the next two months until an away match against Portimonense, which saw Pizzi score in a 5-1 win.

As Benfica stumbled their way towards a trophyless end to their campaign and finish nine points below Rúben Amorim’s Sporting, Pizzi managed to impress and regularly wore the armband, scoring a goal and an assist in a 2-0 win against Tondela and scoring a goal and grabbing two assists in a 4-3 victory against Sporting — the sole league defeat for Sporting in the entirety of 2021.

In total, he ended the campaign with 16 goals and 6 assists in 49 appearances, a sizable decline from his tally of 30 goals and 19 assists in 51 appearances in 2019/20.

Pizzi’s Struggles This Season

This season, however, Pizzi’s fortunes have taken a turn for the worse in Lisbon, with the versatile attacking midfielder being relegated to second-choice following the summer arrivals of Roman Yaremchuk and João Mário as well as the emergence of Paulo Bernardo in the first team.

Pizzi began the season on the right foot under Jorge Jesus, starting in Benfica’s opening three Champions League qualifiers against Spartak Moscow and PSV Eindhoven and grabbing assists in victories against Arouca, Vizela and Gil Vicente, although the highlight of his season came on October 27, 2021, when he scored a goal and assist in a 3-3 draw in a cup tie against Vitória de Guimarães.

However, he has only played 90 minutes or more on one occasion this season, a 2-1 win against Trofense in the Taça de Portugal. He has become relegated to a substitute role under Jesus and Nélson Veríssimo, who returned as Benfica’s caretaker manager until the end of the season on December 28.

Whilst Benfica have thrived in cup competitions this season, finishing above Barcelona and Dynamo Kyiv and booking a place in the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 as well as edging Boavista on penalties to progress to the Taça da Liga Final against Sporting, their record has been decisively inferior in the league.

Benfica’s Miserable Year

Benfica began their league campaign with seven consecutive victories under Jesus, and after a 3-1 win against Vitória de Guimarães on September 25, they were the only perfect team remaining in Europe’s major leagues along with Napoli and Paris Saint-Germain. However, that came to an end a week later in a 0-1 defeat to Portimonense, a match that saw Benfica complete 24 shots in contrast to Portimonense’s 5.

This defeat at the Estádio da Luz, which saw Pizzi remain on the bench throughout the full 90, proved to be a fatal blow for Benfica, who drew 1-1 to newly promoted side Estoril Praia on October 30.

Whilst a 6-1 victory over Braga gave Benfiquistas reason to hope, those dreams were quickly shattered on December 3 in a match against Sporting, which saw Amorim’s men triumph 3-1 and condemn Jesus to another defeat against his former side.

Following the mid-season dismissal of Jesus, Benfica ended their miserable year with a 3-1 defeat to Porto, whilst a 1-1 draw to relegation strugglers Moreirense on January 15 has seen Benfica’s hopes of claiming their 38th league championship and their first since 2019 grow even dimmer.

Players in the Final Year of Their Contracts

Benfica currently sit third in the league table, nine points behind league leaders Porto and three behind Sporting. With their hopes of winning a league title looking drastic, Veríssimo, who is undergoing his third spell as caretaker manager, may be tempted to phase Pizzi out even further for younger players such as Paulo Bernardo (20), who has started in Benfica’s last league two matches against Moreirense and Arouca. Whilst Pizzi came off the bench for Brazilian centre back Felipe Morato in the Taça da Liga Final on Saturday, he failed to muster the magic of yesteryear in his 13-minute cameo, completing 12 touches, 5 out of 7 passes, failing to win either of his two ground duels or complete either of his two crosses as Benfica relinquished an early lead and lost 2-1 to Sporting in Leiria.

According to the football salary website Capology, Pizzi’s annual gross wages of €1.5 million place him in joint-13th place amongst Benfica’s squad, tied with Swiss striker Haris Seferović. This puts him ahead of regular starters Odysseas Vlachodimos and Lucas Veríssimo, a sizable outlay for a player who has been relegated to squad player status.

With his contract set to expire in 2023, Pizzi, who turned 32 in October, may very well be approaching the end of a decade-long spell at the Estádio da Luz. Unlike Pizzi, Jan Vertonghen, Alejandro Grimaldo and Nicolás Otamendi are all starters at the club and each of them are entering the final year of their contracts.

Combine that with other players such as veterans Adel Taarabt and André Almeida and 23-year-old midfielder Gedson Fernandes, who are all approaching the end of their contracts, and it may prove financially unfeasible to even consider renewing his contract.

What’s Next for Pizzi?

From the 2014/15 Benfica team that claimed the domestic double under Jorge Jesus, only André Almeida and Pizzi remain. Some, like Luisão, have retired and gone on to work for the club, whilst others, like Rúben Amorim, have retired and gone on to lead Benfica’s crosstown rivals to their first league title in 19 years.

At 32 years of age, Pizzi isn’t too far away from reaching that stage of his career. He could decide to return to Spain or test himself in another European league, or even follow in the footsteps of Douglas Tanque or Carlos Júnior, who have departed Portuguese clubs this season in pursuit of an adventure in Asia. One thing’s for sure, though: we certainly look headed for the final rodeo in Pizzi’s illustrious spell at Benfica.

Zach Lowy is the co-creator of Breaking The Lines (@BTLVid) and a freelance soccer journalist for various websites such as BET Central, Soccer Laduma and Hudl Analysis. He is fluent in Spanish and Portuguese and is the host of the Cortalinhas podcast, a weekly podcast that discusses Portuguese football. Zach has accumulated a wealth of experience and knowledge in football and has written about various subjects for BET Central ranging from Barcelona's financial difficulties to the 'lost generation' of South Africa's Amajita class of 2009.

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